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Clinton praises Democratic candidates in Iowa

Seven seeking party's nomination laud former president

"Go ahead, fall in love, be for somebody," former President Bill Clinton said. "But when the primary's over, let's fall in line and bring the White House back to our party."

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INDIANOLA, Iowa (CNN) -- Bill Clinton spoke to an energetic crowd of Democrats in a wet field in Iowa on Saturday, praising the nine Democrats running for president as the best field of candidates the party has put forward in years.

The former president repeatedly derided Republicans for their budget and environmental plans, and urged voters to elect a Democrat in 2004.

"Go ahead, fall in love, be for somebody," Clinton said. "But when the primary's over, let's fall in line and bring the White House back to our party."

Seven of the Democratic presidential candidates were present, but it was the former president who captured the attention of the Iowa Democrats at Tom Harkin's Steak Fry, held annually by Iowa's junior senator.

In the 2000 race, Clinton all but stood on the sidelines when his vice president, Al Gore, campaigned for president. Gore rarely uttered his name and almost never campaigned with him.

Saturday saw Clinton front and center.

"I am tired of Democrats walking away from Bill Clinton and Al Gore," said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, one of the nine Democrats vying for the White House.

"When I'm the nominee," said Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, another candidate, "I'm going to have Bill Clinton out on the road for me, fighting to win this presidency."

Said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is also running, "I think Bill Clinton and Al Gore will be present in the 2004 campaign. I think they're both going to help us a lot."

When asked about his attention-getting visit to the event, Clinton said he was responding to Harkin's invitation.

"There's no grand plan here," he said. "I just had a good time."

After the speech, Clinton talked up the candidacy of retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who has fueled rumors of an entry into the race but is not a candidate.

"I think he'd be quite good," Clinton said. "I've known him since 1963. He's a good man, smart man, would serve our country well. He was fabulous in the Bosnian peace process, in Kosovo -- in the conflict. He's a good man."

An energetic crowd of Democrats greeted Clinton on Saturday in Iowa.
An energetic crowd of Democrats greeted Clinton on Saturday in Iowa.

Clinton said Bush's presidency has created a deficit, lost jobs, increased poverty, reduced the number of people with health insurance, and cut labor and environmental rights.

The tax cut of 2000 was evidence that the administration failed to plan for a rainy day, Clinton said, and when the terrorist attacks happened, the country was left without enough money to spend on the effort to go after those responsible.

"Not 5 percent" of the American people know the effects of the tax cut, Clinton said, and it's up to the Democrats to spread the word:

"They gave me a tax cut and kicked kids out of after-school programs, unemployed workers out of their job-training programs, kids out of their student loans, cops off the street," he said.

Of the Democrats, Clinton said, "all we have to do to win is make our differences clear, tell people what they don't know that we don't like and they wouldn't like either if they knew it, and tell 'em what we'll do if they give us a job."

CNN congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.

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